Celebrate the Korean harvest festival with chef Ji Hye Kim’s spin on the beloved fried zucchini dish
Jeon 전 is a catch-all phrase in Korean cuisine for savory pan-fried stuff, whether it’s pancakes or egg-battered vegetables. Until recently, oil was precious and deep frying wasn’t much of a thing (by recently, I mean like the past 100 years, tops), so jeon was a special treat. To this day, it always shows up in birthdays, holidays, and celebrations.
My mother made jeon occasionally as a part of the array of banchan she served at every meal. Sometimes she would make kimchi jeon or seafood scallion pancakes for an afternoon snack. But for holidays like Chuseok 추석 (an annual harvest festival that begins today), jeon was an all-day production by a team of women — my mother and aunties — making at least five to seven types of jeon, enough to feed the whole extended family. (They would slice the different vegetables, whisk the eggs, heat up the pans, and deftly flip each piece with chopsticks, which was my favorite thing to watch. I’d marvel at them, then wait for the jeon to come off the pan so I could steal a piece or two, when it was hot and delicious. Eventually, I was kicked out for being in the way and stealing the food before we served it for the ancestor’s table or for the elders.
The history of hobakjeon (zucchini or squash jeon) can be traced to at least the 19th century, when it was mentioned in Ahungakbi 아언각비, a sort of linguistics and language book published in 1819, and Siuijeonseo 시의전서, a cookbook compiled later that century. And that old recipe doesn’t look a whole lot different from the ones being made today.
This recipe, however, does differ a little bit. Most often, the zucchini used in hobakjeon is lightly salted and allowed to drain before it’s dusted, battered, and fried. That prevents the finished hobakjeon from getting waterlogged, which is great when you’re making a huge batch for extended family. But in this recipe, hobakjeon is meant to be eaten right away, even right off the pan, just like I did as a child thief during Chuseok. So instead of salting and draining the zucchini, I season the egg batter with salted shrimp to build umami, which does all the heavy lifting in the salt department — you really don’t need much more salt to draw out the water from the zucchini or add to a separate dipping sauce. I hope you fry the excess zucchini from your garden into hobakjeon during the late summer, and celebrate your own harvest in some small way that connects you to my extended family and my ancestors for Chuseok.
For the master jeon dry batter:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup rice flour (you can substitute cornstarch or potato starch, but do not use mochiko or sweet rice flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the zucchini or squash jeon:
½ cup master jeon dry batter, plus more as needed
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons saewoojut (Korean salted fermented baby shrimp; you can also substitute with fish sauce or soy sauce)
1 tablespoon finely chopped scallions
1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
Approximately ½ pound zucchini or squash (about 2 6-inch zucchini), sliced into ¼-inch pieces (you’ll end up with about 4 cups)
2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola
Step 1: Make the master dry batter by thoroughly combining all of the ingredients in a bowl. You can make this ahead of time and store it in a sealed container in your pantry.
Step 2: Put ½ cup of the dry batter onto a plate or a cookie sheet.
Step 3: Put the eggs, saewoojut, scallions, and black pepper in a medium mixing bowl and whisk well to combine.
Step 4: Dip the sliced zucchini into the dry batter to coat them, then dust off any excess batter with a brush.
Step 5: Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat and add the oil. While the pan is heating, dip the dusted zucchini into the egg mix.
Step 6: When the pan is hot, add the zucchini. You should hear a subtle sizzle.
Step 7: Cook until the edges of the egg mix are set and the side is golden brown, approximately 1 minute. Then flip and cook the other side.
Step 8 : Place the finished jeon on a cooling rack or a cookie sheet covered with paper towels to drain the excess cooking oil.
Step 9: Serve while still hot and enjoy!
Ji Hye Kim is the award-winning chef and owner of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2021 and a James Beard Award Best Chef semifinalist, Ji Hye aims to broaden the understanding of Korean cuisine through her cooking.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa